Almost all discussion of slick French cyber-thriller “Black Heaven” sooner or later mentions David Lynch’s late ‘80s masterpiece “Blue Velvet”as a defining reference. It would have been nice to be the one to buck that trend, but the inescapable fact is that the collaborative shared writing/directing partnership of Gilles Marchand and Dominik Moll (which has previously produced similarly flashy techno-thriller material in “Harry, He’s Here to Help”  and “Lemming” ), blatantly has adopted the noir structure of Lynch’s classic film -- although ultimately with nowhere near the same level of effectiveness, despite the intriguing possibilities opened up by the story’s usage of a virtual reality landscape as the location for part of its light-meets-dark, femme fatale-centred mystery narrative. While Lynch’s film takes classic noir/Hitchcockian thriller tropes and contorts them into a warped psycho-sexual nightmare of innocence and corruption, “Black Heaven” (which goes under the name “L’autre monde”, meaning “Another World”, in France) is far too concerned with showing off its pretty young cast, luxuriating in appealing Mediterranean locations and displaying its cool, clinical, sub-Michael Mann aesthetic credentials, to really cut lose and make the most of the potential for identity-dissolving madness opened up by its innovative, duel, real world versus online, setting.
A quartet of young friends are enjoying an idyllic summer holidaying on the coast of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur in Southern France, when handsome Gaspard (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and his new girlfriend Marion (Pauline Etienne) discover a mobile phone in some changing rooms near the beach where they and their two friends have been diving. This is the catalyst that sends the two innocent young lovers off on a journey into a dark world of seduction and suicide. Both teens are intrigued by ambiguous voice-mail messages left on the phone by a man who goes by the pseudonymous name DRAGON; they were intended for someone called SAM, apparently the phone’s owner. Examining previous text messages leads the couple to discover that DRAGON and SAM know each other only from an online game called THE BLACK HOLE – a Second Life type of role-playing deal, where participants adopt a virtual identity and construct an avatar to represent them in the BLACK HOLE world. Discovering a text that provides a location and a time for DRAGON and SAM to meet up in the real world, Gaspard and Marion decide to be there to witness the event and then to follow them …
The two strangers -- a sultry, leggy blonde with a golden retriever and a thin man clad in motorcycle leathers (Swann Arlaud) -- meet in a peaceful town chapel and drive out to a large hardware hypermarket, where the man calling himself DRAGON purchases a length of tubing. The youngsters follow the two of them at a distance, all the way out to the mountainous woodlands that surround the coastal town, where they eventually lose the strangers’ trail and settle for a romantic afternoon on a rocky outcrop overlooking the coast instead. Hearing the whining of a distressed animal, the two lovers follow the noise and eventually rediscover the vehicle they’d previously been attempting to follow, with SAM’S dog locked outside. The couple have gassed themselves using the tubing purchased earlier by DRAGON – the meeting, it seems, was all part of an organised suicide pact! The man is dead but the woman calling herself SAM is discovered to be just about still living and is rescued by the two young people.
Having called the authorities, Gaspard and Marion return to their former lives, enjoying the summer with their two young friends; but Gaspard is still intrigued by the whole drama and has secretly pocketed a camcorder which was left recording on the dashboard of the suicide pact couple’s car as they expired together, documenting the whole event. Obsessively watching back the material, Gaspard becomes intrigued by mention of something called ‘the black beach’ – a place the couple apparently believe they would have discovered together in death. A chance meeting a few months later with SAM (whose real name turns out to be Audrey [Louise Bourgoin]), at the town apartment where one of Gaspard’s friends regularly goes to pick up his supply of weed, draws the adolescent further into this beautiful woman’s seductive net, although Audrey seems to have a menacing, domineering and overbearing brother called Vincent (Melvil Poupaud) who is instantly suspicious of Gaspard’s intentions in getting to know her.
Warned to stay away from her in real life, Gaspard becomes intent on tracking Audrey down in the role-playing world of THE BLACK HOLE. This turns out to be a noir-ish, animated, neon-lit metropolitan landscape where newbies start off naked and with nothing, and have to find their way in the world by making a virtual living which will then allow them to collect credits and gain them more power and mobility (sounds disappointingly like real life). The ever more seductive world online proves a tempting respite from the day-to-day difficulties of Gaspard’s relationship with the pretty Marion (her over-protective father is proving something of a cock block) and Gaspard’s online counterpart starts to forge a life for himself, selling cute little floating avatar pets to earn his credits (this section of the film looks like anime rendered in strangely ‘90s looking 3D CGI).
One of his virtual customers turns out to have exactly the same tattoo inscription on her shoulder as Audrey does on her lower back: it says ‘Black Heaven’. At first, Gaspard thinks he might have at last found Audrey’s online avatar, SAM, but it turns out this is a standard tattoo that is displayed by all ‘slaves’ of an elite club with the same name – a brooding tower block that looms across the virtual cityscape and which is restricted to all but the most highly placed denizens of THE BLACK HOLE world. Gaspard’s online ‘self’ sets about the task of inveigling his way into this most exclusive and mysterious of virtual locations, unaware that the line between reality and its virtual counterpart is about to be breached, with dangerous results.
“Black Heaven” starts out promisingly. The two young protagonist look like they’re going to become people we can identify with; Pauline Etienne in particular has a fresh, girl-next-door appeal, while Leprince-Ringuet seems a likable young chap whose lucked out in love and bagged the girl his two friends were clearly also after. Louise Bourgoin is well cast as the vulnerable femme fatale whose virtual self plays up to the film noir stereotype, drawing Gaspard into a darker level of the gaming world in which virtual suicide becomes the gateway into an idyllic romanticised level of higher online existence. The structure of the film does indeed echo “Blue Velvet”: Leprince-Ringuet and Pauline Etienne assume analogue roles of the characters played by Kyle MacLachlan, and Laura Dern in Lynch’s film – the innocents, initially drawn together by an investigation into a dark mystery – while Bourgoin is cast in a similar role to that of Isabella Rossellini. The lush widescreen photography of cinematographer Céline Bozon presents a dreamy southern coastal paradise that takes full advantage of the picturesque Marseille locations and contrasts them with the dark animated virtual futurescape of THE BLACK HOLE as created by the film’s graphic design team, where Gaspard’s avatar meets up with the even sultrier online avatar version of Audrey. It turns out SAM is a blindfolded nightclub chanteuse in the artificial cyberspace reality of the Black Heaven club and ‘the Black Beach’ is the game’s purgatory level, a region gamers are sent to if they lose in a virtual fight -- that is until they can gain enough credits to get back to the main arena of action. SAM tells Gaspard it is her favourite place and invites him there for a romantic moonlit assignation. To reach it, their cyber-avatars have to shoot themselves in the head!
The possibilities for a disturbed mind fuck of a movie are legion in this scenario, so it is rather disappointing that the film never really flies with its theme and gets far too tied down to what turns out to be a rather disappointingly straightforward plot. The way in which Gaspard’s real life becomes deeply affected by his cyberspace dalliance with the SAM avatar is interesting, but Marion, after being essential to the early part of the movie, tends to fade out of the picture once the action really gets going with Bourgoin’s double seduction both online and in real life. Even Bourgoin’s character never really feels believable or fully rounded and the ramifications of what is an easily to predict twist, unveiled In the last fifteen minutes, aren’t explored to anything like their full potential. What’s more, Gaspard is a fairly bland character and we never really fully connect with him -- a fatal flaw considering he’s seduced into behaving abominably on the off-chance of getting his leg over with the unattainable Audrey, over the course of the film. What we are left with then, is a nice-to-look-at, slick and easily well-mounted modern thriller that doesn’t get underneath the skin of the characters or the viewer in any significant way. It’s a good thriller but not an especially memorable one.
Arrow Films’ UK DVD version offers a great transfer which looks excellent throughout, but no extra features whatsoever unless you count scene selection as an extra.